Risk-taking behaviour rises until 50
Willing to risk your knowledge, skills and monetary reward in
competition? If you are under age 50, you’ve probably not reached your
competitive peak. If you are older, that peak is behind you.
That people are willing to engage in risk at 50 surprised University
of Oregon economists and psychologists who explored such behavior in
The project began as part of a required educational component of a
stimulus grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National
Institute of Aging. Under the guidance of the UO researchers, the
students uncovered uncharted territory, so the Mayr-Harbaugh team mined
the data more in-depth.
In a paper appearing online ahead of publication in the journal
Psychology and Aging, the researchers report that the willingness to
enter competition to achieve a bigger payoff continues to rise for all
adults — men slightly more than women — until they get into their 50s.
The results were drawn from 543 of the adults in the study who were ages
25 to 75. The 281 men and 262 women were relatively well balanced across
age brackets of 25-34, 35-44, 45-54, 55-64 and 66-74. “Competitions are
really important as people go after resources, political positioning,
college admission, jobs and the like,” Mayr said. “How well you perform
in them determines your success.
Maybe it’s all about choices people make. The results of our study
were striking and novel.” “We expected to find the competitive
risk-taking going down,” Harbaugh said. “Seeing it going up to age 50
was surprising.” Conventional wisdom, based on previous research most
often focused on younger adults, indeed has suggested that risk-taking
behavior declines after about age 25. Earlier research also has shown
that cognitive performance declines as people age, with hormone levels
such as cortisol and testosterone going down.
“The general notion,” Mayr said, “has been that as you grow older,
achievement is not as important anymore.” Earlier studies also had
documented that women, especially college-aged, were less likely than
men to participate in competition. “The gender difference didn’t go away
in our study,” Harbaugh said. Interestingly, the researchers found that
these gender differences “extend across the lifespan, remaining
virtually unchanged between 25 and 75.” Taking risks to achieve rewards
has huge consequences, he said.
It is a behavior that is fundamental in the business world, he said,
whether a person is launching a start-up company or a restaurant, for
example. “We need to understand this drive and gender differences that
might be at play. While we saw parallel curves for men and women across
the lifespan, it was slightly less strong for women.
What are the consequences for men and women?” The participants had
been given a choice to complete a short mathematics exercise and receive
a small cash reward for correct answers in non-competitive work or
potentially larger payoffs if they out-performed others in the task.